Guest commentary by Albert G. Butzer
Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing but rejoices in the truth. (1 Corinthians 13:4-6)
We are in receipt of the first of the letters you wrote to the church in Corinth. In fact, the church I serve recently read from your letter during worship, a portion of chapter three, as well as your beautiful words about love from chapter thirteen. Whatever we mean when we use the words “divinely inspired,” there is little doubt that God was smiling down on you when you penned such magnificent words.
Indeed we have used your words about love far and wide, occasionally reading them at funerals, printing them on posters and plaques, and most often reading them at weddings. It’s hard to imagine a wedding without 1 Corinthians 13, for when we listen to the words, we can almost see the couple standing a bit taller, a bit prouder, as they ponder these magical words on their magical day.
We realize, of course, that when we read your words at weddings, when we print them on our posters and plaques, we are divorcing them from the context in which you first wrote them. For you did not write them for use on a wedding day. Rather, you wrote these words about love to a church whose members were struggling to get along. Some of them, it seems, came out of the Jewish tradition, which stressed conventional morality and values, while others came out of the Greek Hellenistic world and brought to the church a strange new culture.
As a result, they began taking sides, dividing themselves into competing camps. “I belong to Apollos,” said some. “I belong to Paul. I belong to Cephas,” said others. No wonder you had barely begun your letter when in chapter one you asked your readers this startling and disturbing question: “Has Christ been divided?”
If we’re really honest with ourselves, we will quickly admit that the church has always struggled with divisions.
- Do Christians have to come out of the Jewish religion, or is the church also open to non-Jews, to Gentiles? This was one of the first divisions in the church, debated on the pages of the New Testament.
- Several hundred years later, the church addressed a number of disturbing heresies, resulting in the formalization of the Apostles’ Creed.
- About 1000 A.D. the church experienced a major schism between East and West, between the Orthodox and the Roman versions of the Faith, some loyal to the Patriarch of Constantinople, others loyal to the Pope of Rome, a schism that has continued to this day.
- Fast-forward another 500 years to the time of the Protestant Reformation, where a number of new expressions of Christianity came into being: Lutheran, Presbyterian, Anabaptists, Anglican, Methodist, Pilgrims and Puritans. Divisions arose around important theological issues like these: Shall the church continue to baptize infants, or restrict baptism to those old enough to profess their own beliefs? Do the bread and wine of Communion actually become the body and of blood of Jesus, do they co-exist but remain separate or do they merely symbolize Christ’s body and blood?
- Our own Presbyterian denomination experienced a major schism here in America in the 1800s, when Northern and Southern Churches could not agree as to whether the Bible condoned slavery.
- During the Scopes’ Monkey Trial in the 1920s, many denominations were torn apart as they struggled to reconcile the teachings of the Bible with theories of modern science like evolution. Some churches clung to a strict pre-scientific literalism while others modernized their beliefs affirming the truths of science and of faith leading to additional divisions.
- More recently, many churches, including the Presbyterian Church, have debated hot-button social issues like abortion and homosexuality, further dividing the Body of Christ.
So Paul, when in First Corinthians, chapter 1, you asked if Christ has been divided, the sad answer illustrated time and time throughout history is, “Yes. Unfortunately, Christ has been divided.”
Today, the divisions in the church feel different. There was a time when the divisions were external. It was “us against them.” Christian against non-Christians. Protestants against Catholics. Presbyterians against Lutherans or Baptists.
It was us against them. But now, the divisions feel different, now it feels like it’s “us against ourselves” (as one biblical scholar noted). Strangely enough, today’s divisions are not primarily about theology, or heresy, or denominational differences or whether the mystery of Holy Communion can be explained by transubstantiation or consubstantiation. Rather, some of today’s divisions are due to politics. Exactly who is to blame for this, I am not sure. Undoubtedly, 24-hour cable news programs need to bear some of the blame, where they pit one person against another and the so-called winner is the one who yells the loudest and makes up the most outrageous claims. Facebook is also to blame, for far too many of us have used it not just to share pictures of our children, but to promote one political position or another. God only knows how many friendships and even family relationships have been harmed because of this use of Facebook! Add to this the explosion of so-called “fake news,” where people are duped into believing anything they read, the more scandalous the better. But we also bear part of the blame, because we have elevated politics to the level of idolatry. We have made politics into our golden calf. On both the left and the right, we are guilty of worshipping that which is not God.
And so, Paul, there are divisions among us, just as there were divisions in the church in Corinth, which prompted you to write them in the first place. Unfortunately, these divisions are especially apparent in so-called “purple churches,” like the church I serve, where some of the members are red-state Republicans and some are blue-state Democrats. As a result, when I look out into my congregation, what I see is a whole sea of purple. Not surprisingly, some of our members say to me, “Please don’t say anything about politics this Sunday,” while other members say, “You absolutely must speak about that this week.”
As a result, the unity of the church is fragile and at risk. But there is an even greater risk today than church unity. According to a recent research poll conducted by the Barna group, only 8 percent of Americans want to hear their ministers talk about so-called “social issues.” So much for preaching with the Bible in one hand and the daily newspaper in the other! So much for the prophets of Israel, whose words comprise more than one-third of the pages of the Hebrew Bible and who boldly criticized kings and priests whenever they strayed from God’s ways and neglected the most vulnerable members of society. So much for the hard words of Jesus who challenged the leaders of his day saying:
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others. You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel! (Matthew 23:23-24)
Paul, what I am saying is this: Partisan politics has made it nearly impossible for most Americans to hear the message of Jesus. We are so engrossed in politics, we have so idolized our partisan opinions that we can no longer hear the challenging and even disturbing demands of faith. The church is meant to witness to the truth of Jesus Christ. Instead, we have allowed partisan politics to rob us of our most important mission.
As a preacher like you, Paul, I am deeply discouraged by this trend, but I am not defeated because I believe in the power of the gospel to bring life out of death. I believe in what you describe in chapter 12 as “a more excellent way,” which is none other than the way of love. Maybe love, or “charity” as that word is sometimes translated, is the miracle we need today:
Charity is patient; charity is kind; charity is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing but rejoices in the truth. Love (or charity) bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things….
…even at a time such as this.
I send you greetings in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ and on behalf of the saints who comprise the members of First Presbyterian Church, Virginia Beach, Virginia.
Sincerely yours in Christian love,
Albert G. Butzer III
Albert G. Butzer III is the pastor of First Presbyerian Church in Virginia Beach, Virginia.